by Robert Diab *
Courts in Canada and the United States currently hold warrantless and groundless device searches at the border to be reasonable. They do so by assuming the state’s pressing interest in search at the border extends to the search of device data at the border. Apex courts in both nations have yet to address the issue. Yet in recent cases on device searches on arrest (Fearon and Riley) both courts have made holdings about privacy and the state interest in device searches that run contrary to assumptions in the border search cases. In the wake of Fearon and Riley, courts in border cases have conceded the greater privacy in device data but have tended not to question assumptions about the state interest in data search at the border.
This paper examines the development of the law on border device searches in both nations with three aims. The first is to show that governments and courts have not been sufficiently critical of state interest in assessing reasonable border data searches. The second aim is to consolidate critical opinion on the nature of the state’s interest in border data searches, and to add the argument that the state has a less pressing interest in data search here than in the search of a person’s body, calling for a higher standard than reasonable suspicion. The third aim is to demonstrate that in recent reform efforts in Parliament and Congress, lawmakers have begun to question whether groundless border device searches are reasonable but have lacked clarity on state interest. The paper concludes by suggesting that reasonable search should be assessed in this context by foregrounding the question of state interest and taking an evidence-based approach, and that doing so supports a warrant standard.